Headphones - perhaps to listen to Glossika with! From freeimages.com

Getting Polyglossic with Glossika : Making Language Learning *Massive*

I’ve always liked the ‘mass sentences’ approach for supplementing and boosting your language learning. The idea is that you take a huge corpus of quality, target language sentences, and use them as your source material. It’s a quick route to massive exposure. It’s the idea behind Tatoeba, which is a fantastic, crowd-sourced resource. But, more commercially, it’s also the approach of Glossika, a popular resource in the polyglot community. I finally got round to giving it a whirl lately to see what all the fuss was about.

Glossika has been around for a while already. They are available in a very impressive array of languages (think: Routledge’s Colloquial series but for mass sentences). Until recently, they were chiefly available as book / CD sets, like this level 1 Japanese course. However, the materials are now available for subscription through Glossika’s website, making it much easier to trial and access their range.

Now, one thing that always put me off was the price. Glossika courses are on the expensive side, approaching the Rosetta Stone level of pricing. At anything up to £100 per level on Amazon for the physical media right now, and with three levels in the core languages, that’s a hefty price to pay for the promise of fluency. The website, however, now adds a more affordable way to access the courses at $24.99 a month (billed annually, currently around £19).

Still, this comes in more expensive than other popular, paid web language platforms like Babbel (as little as £4.75 a month) and Memrise Pro (from $2.50 / about £2 a month). Admittedly, Glossika’s overheads are probably a fair bit higher, with that vast amount of native speaker recording they must have to do. But what benefits do you get for that extra cash?

What Glossika does well

I’ve now spent just over a week using the website, performing repeated Icelandic repetitions. Remarkably, I have already noticed an improvement in my speaking confidence. I think this comes down to two things.

Accent and prosody

The Glossika method is a fantastic way to train your ‘muscle memory’ for speaking in the target language. The listen-repeat method is a blunt instrument, and as old as the hills, but there’s little better for perfecting your accent.

As some of the sentences are quite lengthy, the system is also great for internalising prosody, or the natural rhythm, of your target language. This has the knock-on effect of improving your listening skills, too. After a week of Glossika, I felt that my comprehension of spoken Icelandic had edged forward.

Language patterns

The material also hammers into your head reams and reams of model sentences. On the face of it, you might take this as passive, parrot-fashion learning. In fact, though, the sheer number of them facilitates the pattern-matching parts of your brain. Tricky, colloquial turns of phrase start to become more familiar, and you start to pick up phrases that can act as adaptable frameworks for more spontaneous speaking.

Icelandic (much like German, Polish and Russian) can sometimes collapse into a blur of declensions and conjugations for the learner. The language’s particular mountain to climb (in my experience) is adjectival endings, which seem as numerous as the stars. Through a week of sentence modelling with Glossika, some of the trickier ones are finally falling into place through repeated exposure.

Glossika gripes

Nothing is perfect, of course. A couple of things stand out as needing attention and improvement in Glossika, namely:

Voice choice

Some of the voices aren’t the most mellifluous. The Icelandic voice grated on me a bit, and there were no alternative options (male/female voice, for example, like the uTalk software has done so successfully in the past). That goes especially for the smaller languages, where there is no variety of voice at all. If you don’t like the voice, you’re stuck with it.

Unnecessary conversions

One very weird quirk is that the translators have often opted to convert prices and measurements, quite unnecessarily. One example gives the English as ‘a buck, a Euro’, then gives the Icelandic as ‘120 kronur’. For a start, this is never going to stay accurate for very long, given currency fluctuations. And for another, what is the point? Surely it would be better to make both sentences reflect the Icelandic currency, give that it is an Icelandic course? Just odd.

Also strange is the choice of names and places for the sentences. I assume Glossika have tried to keep the sentence corpus similar between languages. This results in a slightly international flavour to people’s names and geographical locations given. That said, it would be nice to have a few Icelandic names and places thrown into the course. Instead of Brian, Mary, Madrid and Seattle, let’s try Ásgeir, Hafdís, Akureyri and Ísafjörður!

Alternatives to Glossika

The gripes are minor, though. On the whole, Glossika does seem to justify its expensive in terms of results. But, if you are still unconvinced about shelling out, there are a ways to get a similar sentence kick elsewhere.

Phrasebooks with audio

For a cheap, basic raft of target language sentences, you could use one of several tourist phrasebooks with included audio. The Rough Guide phrasebooks are pretty comprehensive, and a bargain at under a fiver (like their French phrasebook for just over £3!). Even better is the fact that the Rough Guide team has made the accompanying audio files available for free online, at this link. Perhaps not as massive as Glossika, but that’s scores of spoken sentences you can start with straight away.

Similarly, the In-Flight series by Living Language (such as In-Flight Polish) are handy and available for under a tenner each. They are so similar to the Glossika format that they almost double as a taster of the method.

Other sources of mass sentences

If it’s sheer numbers of sentences you’re after, look no further than Anki’s shared decks. Several users have created decks based on Tatoeba’s source material, some with sound included. And if not, no fear. With silent decks, you could try the AwesomeTTS text-to-speech add-on for Anki.

Finally, for the benefits of repetition and mimicry for your accent and ‘language muscle memory’, shadowing podcasts can provide a boost. For sure, podcasts are more chaotic than Glossika, lacking the didactic structure. With podcasts, you may have no clue what will come up. But there again, that unpredictability is a good mirror of real-world language.

Glossika – an unpolished gem worth a go

Certainly, you can replicate elements of the Glossika system using other materials. However, none of them quite have that large-scale, ‘sit back and soak it up’ feel that Glossika does. A very solid four stars from me, as those plus points far outweigh the niggles. With 1000 free repetitions (at least a fair few sessions) available for trial on the website, it’s definitely worth a test drive!

Parroting accents may not be the best way to fluency

Accentuate the positive: accents and language learning

This post comes to you from beautiful Belfast, where I’ve spent a wonderful weekend attending a wedding with good friends. The trip has been a treat in more ways than one. As a linguist, accents have always piqued my interest. And at every turn in this great city, I’ve been hearing some wonderfully rich local talk.

Most of the accents I’ve heard are some variety of the central Belfast lilt itself, while others are from further afield. A couple of times, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a bit of Ulster Scots, as impenetrable as that is to the untrained ear! During one taxi ride, I have to admit to the crime of nodding along while understanding barely half the conversation. I really should know better as a language learner!

Accents upon accents

But what I find most fascinating is how local speech patterns impinge upon the English of those who speak it as a second language. This should be nothing new to me, of course, as I hear chimeric accents all the time in Edinburgh. But, surrounded by them all the time, it’s often easy to miss the hint of Scots that inflects the accents of EFL speakers north of the border. Belfast reminded me of just how much the environment affects our acquisition of a foreign language.

I’ve always found that mixing of accents an incredible thing. It’s like a grafting of our life experiences, manifest through our personal travel and migration history, onto speech. Our experiences are etched, in sound, into the way we talk.

In Belfast, for example, you might hear it when the pure, short vowels of a Polish native speaker meld into the open, broad ones of Ulster English. And if you focus closely enough on your own speech in a foreign language, you will detect similar touch points. These are the lines where your speech past meets your language learning present, and both flow into one another.

Foreign versus local

As a language-obsessed kid, I would often dream of learning a language so well that I’d pass for native. Whenever I start a new language, there is still a bit of me – that dogged perfectionist – that would love to reach this goal. But is that goal attainable – or even desirable? Is it so bad that our accents in a foreign language are marked by our linguistic past? Is it such a disaster that sometimes I sound a bit English when I speak German?

Of course, the idea of environment affecting learning throws up the opposite question: when aiming for ‘perfect accents’, should we select neutral varieties as our model for our foreign language speech? Or is there value in allowing the places we spend time in making their mark on our emerging voices? Is Belfast, Edinburgh or Birmingham English any less valid as a learning goal than ‘standard’ English (whatever that might be)? In some language environments, like Norway, for example, it is near impossible to avoid absorbing some local hue if you are in the country for any length of time.

These two things are in tension all the time – sounding foreign versus sounding local. And spending time in Belfast, and loving the sound of these accent hybrids, reminds me that it’s really not worth worrying about perfection when it comes to your accent in the target language.

Think how stilted the English variant RP sounds. And it is far from neutral; ironically labelled as such, it actually comes with a lot of social, class-ridden baggage. Accents, whether they are local, minority, niche, sociolect, jargon or brand new hybrids that arise in the mouths of non-native learners, give colour.

Accent pride

It wasn’t until I went to university that I realised I even had an accent in my native language. It was the first proper excursion out of my bubble of home, and it was quite a realisation. It’s always a surprise awakening when you realise that you carry these geographical and social markers that you are barely aware of as a youngster.

As a young English assistant in Austria, I could barely escape it – I strove to tone down the Midlands low diphthongs (like ‘oi’ for ‘ai’) when I realised that the kids were starting to pick it up. “Do I really sound like that?” I thought. Even today, this is something I have to be aware of when speaking a foreign language. My natural set of vowels is lower and broader than most of the languages I’ve learnt, and I try to bear that in mind when mapping my own voice across. (Incidentally, it actually helps a lot with Norwegian, which – to my ear – shares a lot of characteristics with my own English accent!) Certainly, the way you speak your native language can create challenges – and opportunities – in your target language.

But pride in your accent can be a positive act of social defiance in many ways. Personally, I felt slightly ashamed of my Midlands twang for many years. During our formative years, the media drills into us a certain prejudice about accents, and the notion of how people ‘should’ sound. I grew up with my local accent routinely ridiculed on television, for example. Similarly, people in Newcastle and Liverpool have had to put up with countless research studies that position their accents as the ‘least popular’. Shamefully, this speech snobbery continues today.

Don’t worry – be happy

So where does this leave us? The crux of it is, again, that worrying too much about accent in a foreign language is futile. One one hand, it is impossible to escape the fusion of elements when you learn another language. On the other hand, this is where the colour is, the aspects that make you you.

Enjoy the variety, and don’t break your head trying to fit some kind of imagined standard. Your accent – native or target language – is a product of all your life experiences. Be proud of it!

Richard West-Soley aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast in July, 2018

Aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast

Open mic, ready for your voice

Voice in my head: developing polyglot personalities

If you learn more than one language, there is one question you hear more often than any other: how do you avoid getting mixed up? There are many answers to this. But one key strategy, for me, is developing a distinct voice for each language.

When you think about it, differentiating your languages by voice makes complete sense. Languages have patterns of pitch and tone quite distinct from one another. The voice you developed growing up with your native tongue adapted to fit the phonology of that language. It’s not surprising if the fit is a little less snug in French, Spanish, German and so on – at least without a little modification.

But changing your voice can feel intimidating. Our voice is a fundamental element of the self we project into the world; altering it can feel too bold, too cheeky. It’s no wonder that school students in the language classroom can feel reluctant to really get stuck into a foreign accent out. As adult learners, we face exactly the same fear. So how can we best approach a multiple voice approach to language learning?

Have fun with it

It’s important to remember that language learning regularly challenges us to act counter to our everyday inhibitions. Whether it’s speaking with strangers, supplementing our broken speech with frantic hand gestures, or trying to mimic how others sound, linguists are so often thrust out of reasonable, human comfort zones.

The best learners acknowledge this, and embrace the challenge head on. In short, it pays to be a clown!

It’s something we are naturals at as kids, chiefly because kids feel less embarrassment when they are playing around. For instance, this is one area where you needn’t feel guilty about wallowing in linguistic stereotypes. Have a hoot combining your French with dodgy Allo Allo accents. Watch back old episodes of Eldorado and have a go at your cheesiest Spanish. The important thing is to let go of your fear of sounding foolish through having fun.

It’s all very childish… So enjoy it!

Experiment with pitch

You can create instant results by simply experimenting with the pitch of your voice. Spanish and Russian feel more natural to speak when I lower my voice, for example – something my friends still find hilarious (even though I’m not deliberately trying to make them laugh!). (“Is that your Spanish voice again?” Yes. It is. I’m so glad you find it funny!)

On the other hand, I’m aware that the my voice is higher when I speak Norwegian – perhaps because this is easier with a tonal accent.

A lot of this is also to do with the voices you are exposed to as a learner. I listen to a lot of podcasts, for example. And through those, I hear all sorts of voices at all sorts of pitches. It has become a great, accessible way to ‘window shop’ for voices you are comfortable to use as a model. In fact, there are some well-documented techniques like shadowing, which use audio mimicry to drill your foreign language accent.

Exaggerate differences

Once you have a hook on the aural ‘feel’ of a language, you can focus on those differences as a means to differentiate. This is especially helpful if you study pairs, or sets of similar languages. These present a very particular set of advantages and challenges to learners.

I’ve studied both Polish and Russian on my language travels. As Slavic languages (albeit from different branches), they looked and sounded extremely similar to me as a beginner. But gradually, I found a way to mark the line between them through voice.

For instance, I sometimes find it easier to think of the sound of language in terms of shape. Through this lens, Russian is a language with quite sharp edges to my mind. On the other hand, the sound shapes of Polish seem much softer and curvier. When developing my Polish and Russian voices, I place a lot of weight on reflecting these demarcating characteristics.

(Disclaimer: after lots more study of both languages, I realise how different they can both be, now! Sorry for my previous ignorance, Polish and Russian natives! 🙂 )

Own your language

All this, of course, can greatly add to your sense of ownership over the foreign language. It’s vital to claim a language as your own, if you want a life-long relationship with it. And carving out a voice, even a personality, within it, will help you stake that claim.

It’s about feeling at home speaking it; saying “this is my German / Spanish / Uzbek” and being proud of the speaker you have created. Educational psychologists pore over methods to increase ownership in learning; as a language learner, voice work is a handy shortcut to do just that.

Voice in my head – split personality?

Finally, it’s interesting to see how this phenomenon plays out in bilinguals in the real world. Personally, I’ve found myself intrigued by polyglots who report a personality change when speaking another language. Through playing with voice and accent across my active languages, I think I can recognise that, too. Building up a distinct voice and personality in a language will inevitably create ‘another you’.

There is some research evidence to support this, too. However, the effect could be down to situational, rather than psychological factors (ie., bilinguals use different languages in different situations, and they would naturally act differently in those situations anyway – e.g., with colleagues rather than with family). Environmental or otherwise, though, it’s a fascinating thought, and one you can have a lot of fun with as a learner.

Developing a voice in your foreign languages goes hand in hand with perfecting an accent. Have fun playing around with it. And enjoy your polyglot personalities!

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialect deviants? Celebrating linguistic diversity

Spoiler alert: the language you’re learning probably isn’t the language people are speaking. Thanks to dialect, you might be surprised when you chat with your first native speaker.

If you’re not prepared for it, the surprise can be disconcerting at best, and demoralising at worst. I remember the first time I tried out my fresh, pristine, textbook Norwegian in Bergen. I marched up to the tourist information desk, and enunciated my request for a map with all the precision I could muster. And the answer? Gobbledegook. Nothing like my Norwegian learning CDs back home. Was that really Norwegian? Or was I really that bad at learning languages?

OK, I was naïve back then! But dialect can still pose an issue for anyone hoping to get a functional, everyday knowledge of a foreign language.

Golden standard

When you learn a foreign language from a textbook, you’ll be learning a standardised form. This will be some general, accepted form of the language, often prescribed by an official language body in the country of origin. Some of these organisations have remarkable pedigrees; the Académie Française has been looking after the French language since 1635, for example. Spain’s Real Academia Española has been around since 1713. Sometimes, publishers or private companies will become semi-official language keepers, like Germany’s Duden, or the UK’s Oxford English Dictionary.

These lofty institutes (a full list can be found here) are custodians of the ‘dictionary’ forms of language. Consequently, it’s these forms that we’ll find in textbooks as foreign learners, and for good reason; native speakers use language in such varied ways, it would be impractical to learn every manner of speaking from every region. But out in the field, it’s everyday, spoken, dialectal forms that can add a lot of colour to your language experience.

Norwegian dialects: Extreme sport

If you know Norway, you might well consider people like me slightly masochistic. Norway is an pretty extreme example of dialect diversity. In fact, there is so much linguistic diversity in Norway, that there are two official standard forms: bokmål and nynorsk. The interplay between the two gives rise to the great language controversy that continues to play out across the country today.

However, accessing this diversity is gaining an insight into something very close to Norwegian hearts. I recently happened upon a book in Oslo that I just had to buy. In fact, it’s not just a book. It has a big, whopping MP3 player attached to it. Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) is a compendium of Norwegian dialects to read about and listen to! It’s pretty amazing:

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

What grabbed me particularly was this line from the introduction:

Vi nordmenn er stolte av dialekten vår.
We Norwegians are proud of our dialect.

Look at that: proud. Dialect isn’t just something that makes learning Norwegian a bit tricky. It’s actually something that makes Norway Norway. A source of national pride. So you might not understand everything straight away. But you can enjoy something that is as much a part of Norway as reindeer and hurtigruten: marvelling at how rich the country’s linguistic landscape is.

Celebrate diversity

One of the greatest thing about this book is its celebration of all dialects. This is something Norway does very well, where other countries can sometimes stigmatise dialect as ‘substandard’. When I compare this to the situation of my native language, British English, I’m a little ashamed; recent studies suggest a continued prejudice towards certain dialect and regional accents. Even qualifying accents with the seemingly innocuous term ‘non-standard’ hides a snootiness that places them outside some prestige ‘norm’. Can’t we all be more like Norway, please?

Dialect for the learner

So, dialect is a key to richness and diversity in your chosen language’s culture. You needn’t view it as an obstacle, but rather an amazing opportunity. The first engagement as a learner should be to acknowledge that dialects exist, and to expect diversity from your very first interactions. There are a couple of things you can do to maximise your enjoyment, though.

Prepare yourself

Research the linguistic topography through Internet searches. Simply starting with ‘German dialects’ in Google, for example, leads to a wealth of material.

Interrogate your textbooks

Check the intro – does it say which variety of the language you are learning? Does it give information about alternative forms that aren’t included? Welsh, for example, comes in two standards, like Norwegian. Which one are you learning? Be aware.

Expose yourself!

Aim to soak up as much contemporary language as possible. You don’t need to be in the target language country for this. Mine online TV channels and podcasts for examples of real speech. National broadcasters are good places to start; the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK has a wealth of podcasts available, for example.

Reap the rewards

If you can cope with a relatively obscure rural dialect that differs a great deal from the standard you are learning, then you have something to celebrate! Dialect comprehension shows that you’re starting to gain a very deep, active understanding of the language. Like native speakers, you’re able to hear unfamiliar words and make educated guesses at meaning.

Being able to pick out dialects can give you so much more cultural access to your target language country, too. There’s a delicious satisfaction when you hear a dialect and can place where the person is (probably) from.

Look beyond your standardised textbooks, and be prepared for colour, richness and diversity in your language learning experience. Most of all: enjoy it.